He came from humble origins and parlayed a gig at a local department store into five-star publicity history. Tonight, we go undercover to look behind the scenes for the real story of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer — Behind the Legend.”
He was born Rudolph Agnapopolis outside the slums of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The fourth child of Alf and Ida Agnapopolis, his parents both foraged for a living and encouraged their son to take up the family business, but Rudolph had higher aspirations.
He turned a birth defect into a multi-million-dollar empire. Rudolph was shy as a child and was taunted by his classmates for being different or so the legend says, but classmate Herbie Wanamaker remembers it differently. “Oh, it’s true, nobody played with him. But it wasn’t because he was different, we’d be playing cards, you know penny ante stuff and here he’d come, running down the alley imitating a police siren and turning his nose on and off like a police car. I tell ya, I had to stop the boys from kicking his (beep).
Rudolph’s teacher, Mary Witherspoon remembers him as a poor student, “We were never certain if he was slow or just lazy, there wasn’t much available in the way of testing for Reindeer, back in those days. That red nose made it hard for him to read, but just try getting a pair of glasses for a reindeer. It’s true, some of the other children did laugh and call him names, but Rudolph was very egotistical. He thought highly of himself and bragged a lot, about being special. Finally, he left school, just stopped showing up.”
This was the beginning of a dark chapter in Rudolph’s life, after the death of his father in a hunting accident, Rudolph unemployed, without an education fell in with the wrong crowd. He began as a hawker, working the doorway of a seedy strip club. Being paid two dollars for everyone he got through the door, sometimes flashing that now famous nose all night, spending most of his income on hard liquor. It wasn’t long before he drifted into even darker circles, working as a look-out for local underworld figures. [Face and voice altered] “He was a good kid, you know? Did what he was told, kept his mouth shut, didn’t ask no questions. He’d sit in the car and if the coast was clear, he’d flash that nose of his.”
[Face and voice altered] “Man, me and him, we had some pretty wild times together, but some of the boys didn’t like him, thought he was a showoff, but man did he like to party! Many a night, I’ve seen that nose of his white with snow! There was one night, David Crosby had flown in from the coast and he was looking for, shall we say, party supplies. Man, Rudy was crazy that night; I don’t think even Stevie Nicks could have kept up with him.”
But through his contact with show people, Rudolph began trying to improve his life. He registered at a local community college, majoring in drama and began applying for modeling jobs. He labored in local community theaters, working bit parts, being typecast as “wildlife.” His first big break came when as an understudy; he filled the lead role in a local production of “Old Yeller”. The reviews were mixed, but Rudolph now knew his goal in life, to be the most famous reindeer in the world. Eric Von Hufnagel, his long-time drama coach: “He was okay, he had a little talent and I helped him with that. I’ll tell you what I didn’t help him with; he had a full-blown actor’s ego when I met him. He was awfully hard to coach. I had to keep telling him, the nose will only take you so far! But” would he listen to me, no.”
Then fate stepped in, working in a Christmas display at a local department store Rudolph’s star began to rise. He was moved to the lead position of Santa’s sleigh, drawing the ire of his co-workers. [Face and voice altered] “Back in the early days we were tight, but once they put him out front, he went crazy. It used to be Santa’s and his reindeer, and then it became Santa and his reindeer, featuring Rudolph. Then after the book deal and the song, he went all Hollywood on us, I didn’t know him anymore.”
Another of Rudolph’s co-workers said of Rudolph; “They ought to call him the brown nose reindeer, he was always kissing up to the fat guy. That’s how he got to the front of the pack, it wasn’t talent, I’ll tell you that much. When we had that labor dispute back in 03, we all walked out and he said he was with us. But did you ever see him on the picket line? Oh no, he had to do a photo shoot in the Bahamas, for Christ sake. That left just the eight of us to walk the picket line. So we go back to work and we’re doing one of those flying scenes, that (Beep) is dangerous, ya know? Well Rudy’s arguing with the director, as usual and they’re really going at it. Finally, the director gives in and Rudy gets a stunt double!”
Yes, Rudolph was on his way, with book deals, recording contracts and movie deals. But the demons which had haunted Rudolph in the early days, were still with him. There was an incident, where Rudolph attacked a paparazzi, destroying his camera and sending him to the hospital. Many suspected drugs, but Rudolph insisted it was only rutting season. Then after his famous overdose at the Viper room, Rudolph checked himself into the Betty Ford clinic and made a tearful public apology to his fans.
Then there were the other rumors which have dogged him for most of his career. In his famous Oprah Winfrey interview, Rudolph declared publicly, “I’m not gay, I just happen to like going stag!” This was the same interview where Rudolph climbed on Winfrey’s couch, before storming off stage and biting a stagehand trying to feed him. “I just don’t see what my sexuality has to do with my public life!”
As the old adage says, once you reach the top there is only direction left to go. In 2010, a rap album collaboration with 50 cent sold poorly. Then there were the product endorsements, “The Wild Life” a cologne by Rudolph, led to the untimely death of thousands of deer across America. The lead attorney in the class action lawsuit, “This fragrance is no different from putting a target on our backs, this Judas was willing to sell us all out for few bucks.” A summer replacement reality series on Fox, “Rudy’s World” also fared poorly.
Today, Rudolph makes few public appearances; some blame a botched plastic surgery for ruining his career, while others claim his fall was self-inflicted. He has no plans to reunite with the band that had made him so famous.
“I’ve been type cast,” Rudolph insists, “They’ll eat you in this town! I made them all! They’ve all gotten rich off me and that includes the fat guy, riding my coat tails, the whole bunch of them! When the money stops, they turn you loose to starve, like a wild animal.”
Still there are few who can argue, Rudolph had reached the top.